Whether your customer is a garden center, landscaper or the home gardener, customer service is critical to the success of your operation. In the past, customer service was a department primarily created to respond to concerns, often following the mantra “the customer is always right.” However, this traditional method is no longer enough to secure repeat purchases. Today’s customers are looking for companies where they can foster relationships and have consistent positive experiences.

To cultivate this valued experience, there are a few key elements that need to be in place including open communication, honesty and integrity. “Customer service begins with being honest,” says Fred Key, regional vice president in the Landscape Management Division at Ruppert Landscape in Maryland. “Over promising and under delivering in today’s market will not only turn customers away, but could possibly also get a bad online review, keeping new customers away from your door.”

Bailey Nurseries places high importance on employee-customer interactions, including education and marketing events, throughout the year.

Word-of-mouth communications have gone viral with customers sharing their experiences online. The impact is profound, says Donna Cutting, author of “501 ways to Roll out the Red Carpet for your Customer,” with an increasing percentage of individuals choosing to not interact with a company solely because of reading a bad review. Today’s customers expect a high level of service, and brand loyalty is contingent on consistently receiving this experience.

So how do companies ensure this consistent experience? It begins with putting the right employees in place. These employees are not only loyal to the brand, but will invest the time to get to know customers on a personal level.

Chef Jonathan Bardzik, who partners with Overdevest Nurseries, performs cooking demos in the Washington D.C. farmers market.

Employees: the root of customer service

As you seek out potential employees, Simon T. Bailey, author of “Shift your Brilliance,” recommends focusing on the attitude of the employee first and their job-related skill set, second. The reason for this slight shift, shares Bailey, is that it is often easier to train technical skills than attributes like approachability, empathy and a positive attitude. When businesses make the decision to hire for attitude, they now have the foundation to establish a positive customer experience.

When recruiting for new employees, Ruppert Landscape looks for individuals who have traits that match the qualities of their brand. “We look for people who are not only educated in the field, but are also strong communicators and good decision makers,” says Key. To ensure that they maintain a high level of customer service, Ruppert Landscape has put several measures in place including annual surveys and creating the new role of Director of Field Quality and Efficiency to proactively review the process of the field staff. The company’s goal is to continually look at ways their customer service can become more proactive, anticipating the customer’s concerns before they occur.

When hiring new employees, focus on the attitude of the employee first and their skill set second.

Know your customer

Cultivating an environment focused on customer service begins with investing the time to get to know the needs of the customer. To do this effectively, the leadership at wholesale grower Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, Minn., ensures that all of their employees, from sales to propagation, have regular interactions with their customers. “These personal interactions can aid in responding to consumer concerns, while also helping to forecast future products,” says Marc McCormack, director of sales and marketing. “We have learned to listen closely to what the needs of our customers are, this includes what new genetics they are looking for and what they no longer require.”

It is only when companies invest the time into learning about their customers’ specific needs that they can bring their service to a personal level. This can be done through tailored marketing materials, on-site training, product recommendations and even suggesting innovative events. To showcase its Footprints Edibles line, Overdevest Nurseries in New Jersey often recommends having a culinary entertainer like Jonathan Bardzik at the retail location to better connect to customers.

Ruppert Landscape strives to deliver on what they promise to existing customers and knows the value of good online reviews when it comes to gaining new customers.

Overdevest’s marketing strategy was created as a direct response to the food trend and the increased interest in home cooking. However, David Wilson, director of marketing, cautions that companies need to invest the time to understand both the needs of their customer and the customer’s particular market, before making blanket recommendations. “You’re only as good as your last suggestion,” he says. “[If you] blow your integrity and make your suggestion [based on] ulterior motives, then your suggestion could blow up in your face.”

Essentially, it is the job of vendor partners to unveil creative ways to help make sales easier for their clients. This begins by listening to the customer’s concerns and following up with innovative solutions to respond to them. “As wholesalers we have no direct access to the retail consumer, so getting our product in front of the people who will ultimately buy them requires an effective strategy,” says Brian Vitale, cofounder of Arizona East, a wholesale succulent grower based in Minotola, N.J. “This means asking questions, gaining as much of an understanding about their needs as possible, and striving to add exceptional value to their supply chain.”

To understand the needs and concerns of the industry professionals, Becky Heath, co-owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, flower bulb suppliers in Virginia, regularly invites green-industry pros to spend a day in the company’s 8-acre teaching gardens. “Getting industry professionals together is a wonderful way to find out what the issues are out there in the landscaping world or in the public garden world,” says Heath. These personal interactions help foster a relationship with the company, while also empowering them with the educational tools and techniques to market the product to the end customer.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs teaching garden is also a place for the community to learn more about the green industry.

It is about continually striving to take the service level that one step further, not only knowing their gardening preferences, but the particular details, that makes companies successful and unique. “Customer service is providing an experience that leaves a memory,” says Bailey. “It is about building a customer love, so that the customer is so enamoured with the business that he shares his positive story with others.”

When companies personalize the experience to their clients’ needs, they begin the conversion from occasional customers to company ambassadors. These individuals will be not only loyal to the brand, but will help draw others away from your competitors and through your doorway.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs owners often invite industry professionals and customers to its teaching gardens to better understand their needs.